Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear, which doctors call otitis externa, is an inflammation of the external ear canal. It is different from otitis media, a middle ear infection. It occurs when water gets into the ear – usually during swimming or bathing – and does not properly drain. When that happens, the canal can become irritated and infected.

Children with this condition will complain of itching or pain in the ear, the latter particularly when the head or the ear itself is moved. As the canal swells, hearing will decrease. The infected ear may ooze yellow pus.

Swimmer’s Ear Definition

  • An infection or irritation of the skin that lines the ear canal
  • Has recently been swimming or gotten lots of water in the ear canals

Symptoms

  • Itchy and somewhat painful ear canal
  • Discomfort when the ear is moved up and down
  • The ear feels plugged or full
  • Discharge may develop as the swimmer’s ear becomes worse

Causes

  • When water repeatedly gets trapped in the ear canal, the lining becomes wet and swollen.
  • This makes it prone to a bacterial superficial infection (swimmer’s ear).
  • Wax buildup also traps water behind it. Usually, this is caused by cotton swabs.
  • Ear canals were meant to be dry.

Home Care Advice for Mild Swimmer’s Ear

  1. White Vinegar Rinses:
    • Rinse the ear canals twice a day with ½ strength white vinegar (dilute it with equal parts warm water or alcohol).
    • Start by having your child lie down with the affected ear upward.
    • Fill the ear canal.
    • Wait 5 minutes, then remove the vinegar rinse by turning the head to the side and moving the ear. (Exception: ear tubes or hole in eardrum.)
    • Reason: restores the normal acid pH of the ear canal and reduces swelling.
    • Continue until the ear canal returns to normal.
  2. Pain Medicine: Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief.
  3. Local Heat: If pain is moderate to severe, apply a heating pad (set on low) or hot water bottle to outer ear for 20 minutes (caution: avoid burns). This will also increase drainage.
  4. Reduce Swimming Times: Try to avoid swimming until symptoms are gone. Swimming may slow recovery, but causes no serious harm.
  5. Contagiousness: Swimmer’s ear is not contagious.
  6. Expected Course: With treatment, symptoms should be improved in 3 days and resolved in 7 days.
  7. Prevention of Recurrences:
    • Try to keep the ear canals dry.
    • After showers, hair washing, and swimming, help the water run out by turning the head.
    • Avoid cotton swabs. (Reason: Packs in the earwax. The wax buildup then traps water behind it).
    • If swimmer’s ear is a repeated problem, rinse the ear canals after swimming with a white vinegar-rubbing alcohol solution (equal parts of each).
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Ear symptoms last over 7 days on treatment
    • Your child becomes worse

For more information, contact Green Hills Pediatric Associates at (615) 385-1451.